Joe’s Corner: The Stevens-Smart Theorem

In this week’s edition of Joe’s Corner, Joe Misulonas explains why Northwestern will have a much harder time matching the successes of other small basketball programs like Butler and VCU.

As the men’s basketball season comes to a close, the speculation about Bill Carmody’s future with the team will begin. Will Northwestern give him another year with Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb coming back and newcomer Jaren Sina joining the squad? Or will they split with the coach who has taken them closer to the NCAA Tournament than any other coach in the program’s history?

I’m going to ignore the speculation about Carmody’s future and instead focus on one of the arguments I often hear about replacing Carmody. I call this argument the Stevens-Smart theorem.

Basically, the argument goes like this: Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart have been able to take basketball programs from mid-major conferences to NCAA Final Four appearances. Butler and VCU are in similar circumstances as Northwestern. They’re smaller schools with less resources than the Indianas and Dukes, they don’t recruit high-profile recruits and rely instead on lesser known players, and they each use unique schemes to beat higher profile opponents (VCU with its high pressure D, and Butler runs a slow, methodical offense and play physical D).

So often I hear, “If Butler or VCU can do it, Northwestern can do it.” Therefore, we need to find a new coach to replicate their success.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen. It’s an oversimplification of why Butler and VCU (and Gonzaga) have gotten where they are. Here’s why the situations between those teams and Northwestern are not at all similar:

1. Academics- This is obvious and I don’t want to harp on it, but Northwestern has higher academic standards than any program in Division 1 basketball. Automatic disadvantage.

2. Conference prestige- Butler and VCU play in mid-major conferences. Granted, they win those conferences year in, year out. Until they joined the Atlantic 10 this year, Butler was playing in the Horizon, while VCU played in the Colonial. Northwestern plays in the Big Ten.

Now, some of you will probably say this should give Northwestern an advantage. They play in a major conference, arguably the best in the NCAA, and should be able to attract better talent than a mid-major program.

But consider this: You’re a high school basketball recruit. You are talented enough to play on Division 1 team, but not good enough to play on a Duke or North Carolina or one of the top tier college teams. You get two scholarship offers: One from a team that consistently wins its mid-major conference, and one from a team that consistently finishes in the bottom four of its major conference. Do you want to spend four years as a bottom-dweller or a conference champion?

It is easier to attract recruits to Butler or VCU because they are more likely to win their conferences and make NCAA Tournaments. Northwestern has never made a NCAA Tournament. We might be competing for similar recruits, but they have an easier sell. Speaking of which…

3. It’s easier to be a mid-major team- The fact is, it’s easier to be a mid-major program than a major conference program. The level of competition is much lower. You won’t have to go against teams with Top 5 recruiting classes in the nation. The talent gap between the best team in a mid-major and the worst is a lot smaller than the talent gap between the top team in the Big Ten and the worst team in the Big Ten

Consider this: Butler is 23-7 this season. They have a big win over Indiana, which is extremely impressive. But their seven losses are against Xavier, Illinois, LaSalle, Saint Lous (twice) and VCU. Those aren’t exactly premier programs. If Butler had to play a Big Ten schedule, you still think they’d be a tournament team? If they lose five conference games in the Atlantic 10, how many would they lose in the Big Ten?

The fact is Butler and VCU have had much easier roads to the NCAA Tournament than Northwestern has. If either of them were in the Big Ten this season, I’d guess they’d finished around the .500 mark (which I believe is generous) and be a bubble team, just as Northwestern was last year.

4. Who else has done it? The only team that has been able to consistently win at a high level as a mid-major and make runs in the NCAA Tournament is Gonzaga. And they’ve only made it out of the Sweet 16 once. They aren’t competing for National Championships, they’re beating one team that barely makes the tournament before losing to a quality tournament team.

The last two years have been the only years VCU has ever made it out of the Sweet 16, and after two straight NCAA Championship appearances, Butler didn’t even make the tournament last year.

I’m not saying what VCU and Butler are doing isn’t phenomenal. But at the same time, it’s not nearly as easy to duplicate as people think it is. It requires an amazing coach and lucky draw in the Tourney.

Turning around a program isn’t nearly as easy as everyone thinks it is. Northwestern can’t hire a new coach and magically turn into Butler or VCU. It will require another Bill Carmody buildup: Several years of bad basketball followed by a couple of mediocre basketball and then we might reach the precipice of a Tournament appearance.

I’m not arguing whether Carmody deserves another year or not. I’m simply saying that building a Northwestern NCAA Tournament team in the Big Ten is going to require a lot more work than it did for Butler and VCU.

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